Following last week’s collision between an obsolete Russian military satellite and an US Iridium communications satellite, there has been a lot of discussion about the management of orbital space (or, more accurately, the lack of it). Orbital positions are managed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but the effective control of orbital space is a matter of power projection – i.e.: which country can maintain a stronger and more pervasive presence in space. With the Russian program almost defunct, and European satellites limited in number, it is the USA that effectively controls earth orbit. However many other emerging economies see no reason why this should be the case. India now has a regular launch program and in particular China is massively expanding its space presence, even making noises about its ability to destroy satellites if necessary.
China seems now to be using this incident to sound out other countries and the international scientific community about a more coherent and comprehensive international management of orbital space. In an article published on the official English-language news site, Chinadaily, various senior Chinese scientists and People’s Daily journalists are quoted in favour of “establishing a system for the promotion of space safety is an important method of space traffic management”, through “long-term cooperation from the international community”, and perhaps even a “space traffic law”, although it is acknowledged that this is “still a very remote concept”.
The one organisation that is not going to like this at all is the US military. USSTRATCOM has absorbed the space power doctrine developed in the 1990s by USSPACECOM, which argued effectively that orbital space should be part of US military plans for ‘Full-Spectrum Dominance’ (FSD) and that international projects like the International Space Station would be tolerated only insofar as they could be ‘leveraged’ to US advantage. The US military wants to maintain the ‘ultimate high ground’ that dominance of earth orbit gives them, for communications, for surveillance, for weapons targeting. They are not even very keen on the EU Galileo project, the new and more technically-advanced rival to GPS (which is a US military system).
Just as with the discussion about internationalising management of the Internet and moving it beyond US government control, any suggestions of a more comprehensive international management of space are likely to be resisted even at the expense of logic and reason. The Chinese know this very well, and are being rather cleverly provocative. They are however, right.